Media relations basics still apply

November 24, 2009

How many times a day do you hear that the media landscape is changing?  Newspapers are collapsing, television news is turning itself inside out to maintain its viewership and the online world of “citizen journalism” has traditional news outlets struggling for relevancy. If this is all true, are there new rules to follow to get media attention for your nonprofit organization or small business? Should you even bother with traditional media?

Although there are some new considerations when it comes to PR and media relations, the basics still apply. Yes, the online world has opened up many PR opportunities that did not exist before, but the traditional media still play a powerful role.  Also, whether you’re pitching journalists or bloggers, many of the basics are the same for both.

The media release
A number of tech-savvy PR pros have been predicting the demise of the media release for a few years now. That time may come but this basic document is still widely used as a way to initiate media contact.  Sure, there are isolated success stories about pitching to journalists on Twitter but most news outlets still appreciate a to-the-point document that outlines your organization’s story pitch. What is beginning to change is the style or format of the release.

Today’s winning releases are concise and devoid of jargon and overblown claims revealed by the use of phrases such as “leading-edge”, “world-class”, and “value-driven”. You might as well write, “blah … blah … blah” in place of any of these overused phrases for the effect they have on news editors. If a reader does not come to the conclusion that  your new program, service or product is “unique” or a “cut above the rest” from the evidence you provide in your description, it’s probably because it’s not and you shouldn’t be promoting it as such.

You also need to get rid of the canned quotes from your executive director or CEO. The paragraph that quotes the CEO saying, “We’re thrilled to be joining XYZ company in this partnership to provide value-driven services to our mutual clients,” has to go. Nobody talks like that and it’s a meaningless quote. Have your executive make a genuine statement about how your news is actually going to impact customers/clients, change the business/industry or affect employees.

Don’t look for the media release to do it all either. Provide media with links to Web content that offers collaboration, video and/or images that demonstrate your story and a way for journalists to follow continuing developments. The “social media release” strives to provide a format for this Web-friendly content. See the Social Media Release blog for more information.

One pitch for all will fail
In many cases, media outlets have cut back to skeletal staffs. That means that journalists are being asked to pump out more work than they use to. They’re also being asked to blog on their media outlet’s website, post late-breaking news as it happens on the site’s homepage and to engage with readers or viewers on Twitter. They have very little time to appreciate how the story about your company or nonprofit directly appeals to their readers. It’s your job to help them to see it. That means you have to tailor your pitch to the particular outlet or journalist. Know what kinds of stories they want to cover.

For example, I recently pitched a story about a fellow from the UK driving a vintage Triumph Stag across North America in support of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He had a truly compelling personal story about PTSD and was a brilliant storyteller. The story had obvious appeal on a two fronts — the PTSD angle and the vintage car enthusiast angle. I pitched it to auto section editors as well as city news editors as two different stories and got coverage on both sides. One media release trying to cover both of these angles would just not have worked.

Relationships matter
It’s a mistake to think that a reporter will cover your story just because you have a positive relationship with that person. You need to have a good story to begin with. However, a positive relationship does have weight. If a reporter knows that you consistently pitch newsworthy stories, he/she will be more inclined to pay attention to your release.

If that reporter knows that you will go the extra mile to get needed information to them before their deadline, for example, and that you will make sure your spokespeople are prepared and available when you say they will be, that reporter may be more willing to cover your story. Treat reporters with respect, recognize the mutually beneficial relationship, and always act with integrity.

Follow up to stand out from the crowd
The media release is your “entry to the dance” and nothing more. It is not enough on its own to garner media coverage unless the story is so big that it can’t be ignored. Sending out a media release without follow-up with individual reporters and editors is likely to result in no coverage at all.

It is very rare that I get a call on a media release before I do follow-up calls to the media outlets I’ve sent it to. Most often, when I reach a reporter or editor to discuss the release, they have either seen it at a glance or haven’t seen it at all. Media outlets receive hundreds of releases each day. Chances are, your release will go unnoticed unless you connect with someone directly to point out its newsworthy appeal. This doesn’t mean being pushy or asking the journalist if they intend to cover the story. It means making yourself available to answer any questions and pointing out why you thought the journalist would be interested.

The media landscape is changing. With the explosion of social media and other Web-based tools, traditional media is no longer the only  way to get your story out. Landing a story in your local paper or TV news show still has influence and impact, however, and works as a complement to your organization’s other PR efforts. There may be changes afoot but media relations basics still apply.

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